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Winter sports with kids: the low down on gearing up

(Related stories: tubing at Snoqualmie and family snowshoeing)

I have fond memories of spending family time as a child skiing in big, big snow and sub-zero weather. How we all made it through each expedition with frozen smiles mostly intact is a true testimony to my parents' thoughtfulness and prep work.

When my own kids were old enough to hit the hills, I took stock of my childhood experiences. Like my dad, I had become a ski instructor. But when I tried to teach our kids, the line between caretaker/comforter and teacher/instructor confused and frustrated them -- and me. Where I had had success with other children, my kids weren't buying my suggestions. It became apparent that teaching them was straining our relationship.

I started investigating the local ski areas and schools to find a good match for our family. After some research, we found great opportunities that fit our needs. This year, we're putting our daughter in a racing program and finally allowing our son to take snowboard lessons.

Local resources will constantly change, as do the needs of each family, but here are some tips and simple how-to's we've found to be helpful starting points for any winter sports adventure.

The universal truth about families who love winter sports? They have fun outside. And to make sure they have fun, they follow a few basic rules:

They dress for success. Dress in layers beginning with long underwear and socks made of "wicking material" or wool -- NOT cotton. (Cotton keeps moisture next to the skin; at the least making you uncomfortable and at the worst setting the stage for hypothermia.) The final layer should be water-resistant but breathable.

I recommend mittens with leather pads over gloves since mittens keep small fingers cozy and warm. Helmets are optional, but the safety of headgear outweighs the initial expense. And everyone should wear eye protection. Best bets: goggles that don't fog-up and impede vision. It's a good idea to bring extra mittens and socks if you're planning to be out all day.

They set their kids up with the right equipment. This means they go to a reputable ski and outdoor sports equipment shop, or they rent directly from a resort. Many local shops offer families special deals. Look in the telephone directory for trade-in packages for growing kids. Based on the frequency of your outings, ask each shop what their cost-difference would be between renting and owning. Simple research before committing to a package will help you from feeling pressured into something you don't need.

If you decide to buy, look for pre-season ski fairs and consignment shops offering quality used and previous-season equipment. My big pet peeve: Retailers who are more interested in telling you about their extreme sports finesse rather than outfitting you and your family.

They come prepared. Families who do a little prep work to make their kids comfortable and happy before they venture out are more likely to have a good time. Make sure everyone starts their day with a good breakfast. Cover any exposed skin with waterproof sunscreen. (Snow reflects harmful sun rays up, resulting in surprising sunburns under chins, noses and ears.) Make everyone hit the bathroom before hitting the hill. And, to avoid long cafeteria lines and steep prices, pack snacks and a lunch that your family will enjoy.

Follow these tips if you're sending a child to a lesson, whether it's downhill skiing, cross country or snowboarding:

  • Be on time to the lessons. Help your kids (and their instructor) by getting to lessons on time. Remember that you'll need time to park, lug in supplies and equipment, get the resort pass and find your destination. If you plan on this extra time, you will all experience less stress and your kids will be more likely to try new skills.
  • Advocate for your children. You know your kids and how they pick up something new. Tell the instructor a little about their personal learning style so he or she can think of strategies to make their lesson a success. Some kids are visual learners -- they need to see what they're going to learn. Others pick up new skills that have been described to them -- they listen for information. And still other kids are kinesthetic learners -- they're more likely to understand by doing, feeling or trying something. Good instructors will introduce a new skill in several different ways to make sure each child gets the concept.
  • Listen to your kids. People can experience and feel the same things in vastly different ways. Hypothermia, a life-threatening condition, can affect some people in 50F-degree weather. So, if a child says he's cold and needs to warm up, listen to him and take a break until he's warm again.
    It can be easy to forget the goal was to have fun after you've invested time and money in gearing up for a day on the snow. You'll get the biggest reward from your kids if they ask at the end of the day, "When can we come back?"

Tracy Romoser is a Seattle writer and former ski instructor. During most winter weekends at Alpental, you'll hear her yelling after her own kids to "Slow Down!"

Ski school resources

Whether you're looking at arranging private or group lessons, you might find the best solution is to go with a local ski or boarding school. Some schools even offer Nordic lessons (what we used to call "cross country").

Remember to do your homework, and contact several schools to find the one that best fits the needs of your family. If it seems overwhelming, consider calling the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) at 206-244-8541 for advice on selecting the right school.

Recommended schools

Fiorini Ski School
Fiorini lesson packages include bus transportation from Seattle to the Summit at Snoqualmie. A bit pricey for some, but the instructors are knowledgeable.

Powderpigs Ltd Ski School
Offers classes from preschool on up at the Summit at Snoqualmie Central location. Also offers a midweek homeschool and preschool class schedule. Very thorough and child-centered program with low turnover in instructors.

Ski Masters Ski School

Ski Masters offers classes at Stevens, Summit at Snoqualmie and Crystal. Popular with many skiers.

Accessible lessons for special needs
The following two organizations focus on accessible ski lessons for kids who have special needs. Some of the larger resorts, like Crystal Mountain and Whistler/Blackcomb, also offer accessible ski lessons.

Ski for All Ski School
Contact: John Stevenson

Ski for Light: Guided skiing programs for the visually impaired organized by Sons of Norway.
Contact: Maida Pojtinger

Family friendly ski resorts
We live in one of the best areas of the world for winter fun. And to prove it, here's a list of family friendly resorts. Many offer a full slate of services like child care for those too small to hit the slopes with the bigger kids, nearby or on-hill lodging, and downhill, Nordic and snowboarding lessons. Call ahead to make sure they have the features you need for all your family members.

Crystal Mountain-Enumclaw, WA
(Provides a highly recommended ski instruction program on site and also offers accessible ski lessons for kids with disabilities.)

Stevens Pass-Skykomish, WA

Summit at Snoqualmie Pass, WA

(Includes Alpental, which offers Mini and Mighty Mites instruction for kids, Summit West, Central and Hyak. Also has a tubing area).

Mission Ridge-Wenatchee, WA

Mount Baker-Bellingham, WA


White Pass, WA

Mount Hood-Government Camp, OR

Timberline Ski Area & Lodge-Portland, OR
503-622-7979/Hotel only: 800-547-1406

Whistler Blackcomb - B.C., Canada
800-766-0449 or 604-932-4211

Silver Star Mountain Resort - B.C., Canada


Alpine West Ski School

Cascade Ski School

Chief Kitsap Snowsport School

Clancy's Ski School

Edmonds Ski School

John Mohan Skiing & Boarding

Olympic Ski School

The Outing Club Ski School

Rokka Ski School

Ski King Inc Ski School

Ski Klasses Inc Ski School

Webb Ski Enterprises Ski School



Originally published in the December, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.

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